Overcoming the Odds: 7 Tips to Ace Your Interview with an Accelerator

So you applied to that coveted top accelerator and have been selected for a interview? Congrats! While you’ve progressed from 100:1 odds down to maybe one in three to five, it probably all comes down to that 25 minute final interview. As one of the three votes on admission for the Techstars program in Boston, I’ve sat in on hundreds of these. Here are the tips that will definitely work well on me and my colleagues, and most all other decision makers. The links below refer specifically to the Techstars Boston program, but the example will work equally well for YC, 500 Startups, AngelPad, or really any accelerator or investor.

  1. Do your homework on us. Research the program, looking at recent graduates, mentors and especially the interviewers. Not sure who you will be in the meeting? Ask! If you’re reading this blog because you’re meeting with me, feel good! By inserting some reference in that’s personal to the interviewers, it will show us that you’ve got the skill and thoroughness to research and persuade not just us, but also key prospective clients, employees and investors. And don’t assume it’s just one person making the decision. Find out who else has a voice and influence who will be participating. (Hint for Techstars in Boston: it’s Semyon, Eveline and me.) Start with LinkedIn and Google, and look for personal webpages. Youtube or podcasts can be gold.
  2. Practice presenting with your cofounders. Since team dynamics are so important to us, we want to watch the interaction with the key people on the team. How do you share the talking? Do you contradict and talk over each other? Make eye contact and smile? Film it and review as a group — if you haven’t presented a lot together in the past, you probably need more practice. In addition to being prepared with your elevator pitch, you should verbally practice boiling down the answers to certain standard questions. Here’s an excellent list of questions from Alex Iskold, Managing Director at Techstars in NYC. In covers most of the bases, with an explanation of the logic behind them. Short, clear answers show us that you have thought deeply about the topic and communicate well.
  3. Let us know what your needs are. Know what you want to get out of the program besides money and credibility. We want to see intention from our companies, and if we can’t identify how and where we can help you specifically, it’s not a good fit for neither of us.
  4. If you can demo in 2 minutes, ask if we’d like to see it. Know that we’re not focusing on the product, but really on you…but knowing how to show succinctly is just as important as knowing how to tell.
  5. Be prepared for some curveballs or stressful questions. I’m not a big believer in stress interviews — after all, if you’re good, we want you as much as you want us. But don’t let a question like what is “3 divided by 67” flip you out. We know you don’t instantly know the answer, but just want to see how you react. I’ve seen people freak out, wildly change their answers, and blow a place when all they needed to say is “It’s pretty small”, “mind if I open my calculator app?” or “I don’t know offhand — but less than 1/20th, or .05”. We’re looking for grace under pressure and unflappability.
  6. Demonstrate your commitment. We only have a few spots to allocate, and we don’t want to take a chance on teams with key people who don’t commit to participating fully. We understand that great teams have lots of opportunities, and it’s OK to discuss them. But playing hard to get, superior, or ambivalent is the quickest way to ensure you don’t get an offer.
  7. Follow up. You won’t get an offer on the spot. In fact, just as getting warm intros to us in advance of filing an application show us your skill in getting a meeting, following up shows us you have the persistence to close the sale.If there was some open question from the meeting, or some nice win to update us on, please do so! Bonus points if additional followup comes from program alumni or mentors. N.B.: we did pass on one team last year for hounding us too hard and being tone-deaf. So do it appropriately.

Good luck! I hope you get the offer that you want! If you just follow the tips above, your odds got a whole lot better.

One postscript — applications to Techstars’ next program are open until October 15. Here are hints to make sure that you ace the application and get invited to interview.